During his tenure as the Marine Corps observer to Springfield Armory, Melvin Johnson Jr. concluded that the Garand and Pederson rifles on test there both had flaws in design and would be difficult to mass produce. Johnson set about designing a rifle that would be reliable, accurate and easier to manufacture. So in 1935 he produced his first working model of a rifle using a delayed blowback system of operation. This first rifle was made from scrap firearm parts and had a knitting needle for a firing pin. Despite these rudimentary beginnings, the design worked fairly well but needed major refinements.
On September 28 1937 Johnson’s first U.S. Patent, number 2,094,156 was granted. The first of over a dozen different US patents concerning firearms (and bayonets for them).
This refined weapon now operated on a retarded recoil system. Using his Patent, he and Marlin Firearms of New Haven Conn., produced prototype military specification rifles which were submitted to the Army Ordnance Board for evaluation at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds, MD in August 1938.These first tests were fairly successful, but some weaknesses were found in the design. These were quickly rectified by Johnson. These refinements led to new Patents for Johnson, numbers 2,146,743 modified the bolt and extraction system, and 2,181,131 brought changes to the cocking handle and the extractor. This latter Patent made it possible to remove the extractor from the weapon while still leaving the bolt in place. A new rotary magazine was introduced to replace the vertical box magazine which had proven weak under testing, though the vertical box magazine model was still available to potential customers. The two types were identified by using the initial V (vertical) or R (rotary) to differentiate the magazine types. Detail of Marlin a manufactured receiver
The Taft-Peirce Company of Woonsocket, Rhode Island, who were making commercial sporting grade rifles for Johnson, was now contracted to make seven trials guns containing all of the modifications for further Army tests. These rifles cost $3500 each to make. The sporting grade guns were produced containing such civilian market refinements as checkered stocks, recoil reducing butt plates and provision for scope mounting.
The Army Ordnance Board trials commenced in December 1939, again at Aberdeen. Using Taft-Peirce manufactured rifles, over 6,000 rounds of ammunition were fired with only 12 minor stoppages experienced. These tests found that although the Johnson rifle was well made, it was not suitable for Army use.The Ordnance Board stated in their report of the trial dated February 23 1940, that the rifle was too long and heavy for their requirements and that it would not function reliably with the bayonet fitted. The magazine was considered delicate and its design would allow the ingress of sand and other debris into the action, causing stoppages.
Having suffered a set back with his hopes of acceptance by the Army, Johnson set his eyes on the Marine Corps, which still had doubts on adopting the Garand as their new semi-automatic rifle. Initial trials were held at Quantico Marine Depot, Virginia, in May of 1940. This trial was supervised command of Captain George Van Orden and the firing party consisted of four distinguished Marine Corps. marksmen and a Chief Marine Gunner as the shooting coach.
The test took place on the afternoon of May 6 and the whole day on May 7, and consisted of instruction in the operation and firing methods of both types of rifles. Courses of fire at 300 and 1000 yards both slow and rapid fire were then shot. All shooters firing both M1 Rifle and Johnson Rifle at each stage.
Results concluded from the tests found that the Johnson Rifle was more accurate with a score of 81.2% total hits to the M1′s 71.3%. There were no malfunctions with the Johnson Rifles or the M1Garands, however the M1′s dropped their centre of impax during the test. The M1′s were found to load and reload faster than the Johnsons but rate of fire in the rapid mode was identical with both rifles.
Capt. Van Orden’s Summary Opinion stated “The Johnson Semi-Automatic Rifle, Rotary Magazine Type, is materially superior to the U.S. Rifle, cal. 30, M1 in accuracy and potential combat efficiency”